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Bye-week breakdown: Defensive backs

11.12.13 at 7:30 am ET
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When healthy, Aqib Talib has been a transformative part of the New England pass defense. (AP)

When healthy, Aqib Talib has been a transformative part of the New England pass defense. (AP)

With the Patriots off this weekend, we’ve got our Bye-Week Breakdown, a position-by-position look at the team. We kicked things off with a look at special teams and offense. We focused on the defensive line and the linebackers — now, with the team set to take the practice field again Tuesday,we wrap things up with the defensive backs.

Overview: The most consistent part of the defense over the first nine games, the secondary has exceeded expectations all season long. Sure, a sizable portion of that has been thanks to the work of cornerback Aqib Talib — when he’s been healthy, he’s deserved a spot in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year. At the other corner spots, there’s rapidly improving rookie Logan Ryan, who has pushed Kyle Arrington and Alfonzo Dennard for playing time. (For what it’s worth, Arrington has had an excellent first half, while Dennard has assumed his usual role as the No. 2 corner opposite Talib.) At safety, Devin McCourty is playing at a Pro Bowl level and could be one of the only players in franchise history to make it to Hawaii via two different positions. Meanwhile, Steve Gregory is having a sneaky good year of his own.

But above all others, it’s been Talib who has been the transformative presence. Like Rob Gronkowski (and Tom Brady), he is an elite player at his position, and someone who the Patriots will rely on heavily down the stretch and into the playoffs. If he can continue to be the high level corner he was over the first half of the season, there’s every reason to think New England will have one of the best pass defenses in the AFC.

Depth chart: Cornerbacks Aqib Talib (17 tackles, four interceptions, nine passes defensed), Alfonzo Dennard (34 tackles, one interception, seven passes defensed), Kyle Arrington (33 tackles, one interception, seven passes defensed), Logan Ryan (20 tackles, 1.5 sacks, one interception), Marquice Cole (one interception); safeties Devin McCourty (52 tackles, one interception, six passes defensed), Steve Gregory (53 tackles, two passes defensed), Duron Harmon (nine tackles, two interceptions), Tavon Wilson, Nate Ebner.

Best moment: It’s tough to choose from Talib’s Greatest Hits — the Falcons and Saints are likely his two best this season — but we’ll take the performance against Atlanta for two reasons: one, his pass breakup at the end of the contest fundamentally saved the win for the Patriots. And two, his reaction after the play was made. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a New England cornerback look that confident in his play — when it comes to pass defense, that’s a good thing.

Worst moment: Two jump off the page: One (and the first is more of a team defense breakdown than anything), in the Oct. 20 loss to the Jets, there was a breakdown in containment when New York QB Geno Smith scrambled free in the red zone, and he was able to shake Cole near the goal line and plunge in for the touchdown. Two, the sight of Talib leaving the win over New Orleans with a hip injury has to be disconcerting — so much of the success of the defense is tied up in having Talib on the field.

By the numbers: 52.5 yards per game. The difference in passing yards allowed through nine games in 2012 vs. nine games in 2013. The Patriots preach team defense more than just about anyone, but it’s hard not to look at the this year’s pass defense numbers against last season and not credit the work of the secondary. Through nine games in 2013, the Patriots have yielded an average of 232.8 passing yards per game (13th in the league). Through nine games last year, New England was allowing an average of 285.3 passing yards per game (29th in the NFL).

(Of course, the flip side — and there’s always a flip side — to all of this is that through nine games last season, the Patriots were one of the best teams in the league at stopping the run, allowing an average of 96.8 rushing yards per game, good for ninth in the league. This year? It’s 128.2, which was 30th in the league going into this weekend’s action.)

Money quote: “I think Aqib is a little bit different than some of the players that I’ve coached. There are some similarities to Ty [Law], but I think they’re two different players. They’re both good, both perimeter corners but I see them as having different skill sets. But maybe Ty would be similar in that he was a good corner and you could put him on a lot of players and not maybe feel like you need to give him a lot of help. I think Talib is a guy that we have a lot of confidence in and probably would treat his matchups a little bit differently than we’ve treated some other ones in the past – [former New York Jets cornerback] Aaron Glenn, but again, he’s about as different a player physically as you could get from Aqib but he also was a guy that could go out and cover a lot of receivers without a lot of help.” — Bill Belichick on Talib, Nov. 11.

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